Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut

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Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut

Coates, Simon

History Today Volume: 49 Issue: 5 (1999)

Abstract

Whilst residing in Paris in the sixth century, Queen Clotild (d. 554), the widow of the Merovingian ruler Clovis, became the unwilling subject of the inveterate plotting of her sons, Lothar and Childebert, who were jealous of her guardianship of her grandsons, the children of their brother, Chlodomer. Childebert spread the rumour that he and his brother were to plan the coronation of the young princes and sent a message to Clotild to that effect. When the boys were dispatched to their uncles they were seized and separated from their household. Lothar and Childebert then sent their henchman Arcadius to the Queen with a pair of scissors in one hand and a sword in the other.

 


He offered the Queen an ultimatum. Would she wish to see her grandsons live with their hair cut short, or would she prefer to see them killed? Beside herself with grief, Clotild stated that if they were not to succeed to the throne she would rather see them dead than with their hair cut short. Rejecting the scissors, she opted for the sword.The sequel to this story, told by Gregory of Tours (d. 594), reveals an alternative to death or short-haired dishonour. A third grandson, Chlodovald, was well guarded and escaped his uncles. Seeking to escape the fate of his brothers, he cut his hair short with his own hands and became a priest. Voluntary tonsuring did not carry the ignominy of shearing under duress. To a twentieth-century audience this story seems strange. Why should a queen choose to have her grandsons killed rather than submitting them to a haircut?

 

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Sharan Newman